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In the five days of “no justice, no peace” mayhem that started on April 29, 1992, an estimated $1 billion of damage was done to the city and more than 60 people lost their lives. As the fires died down and the looting stopped, a stunned L.A. began to examine itself – its police, its civic structures, its divisions, its heart and soul. Southlanders caught up in the riots and their aftermath offer assessments of what happened next.

The riots made the city less Us and Them, more just Us

Father Gregory Boyle, founder and director of Homeboy Industries, facing camera, meets with Johnny Chavez in his office at the company's headquarters in Los Angeles on July 10, 2015. (Los Angeles Times)
Father Gregory Boyle, founder and director of Homeboy Industries, facing camera, meets with Johnny Chavez in his office at the company's headquarters in Los Angeles on July 10, 2015. (Los Angeles Times)

Bear was an imposing figure, a nearly 6-foot-5 gang member who lived in the projects in Boyle Heights. It was May 1, 1992, and the two of us were in the middle of the Pico Gardens playground, and Bear’s voice was trembling.

“Is this the end of the world, G?”

The smoke that choked most of the city had reached all the way to the Eastside.

“No, mijo, it’s not the end of the world,” I told him, but I wasn’t entirely certain.

It was the end of some things. Though remnants remain, it was the end, for example, of wholesale demonizing of folks like Bear. The riots marked the passing of a draconian, Neanderthal-style of policing in Los Angeles. Gang-related homicides reached 1,000 that year, then commenced to be cut in half, and nearly in half again some 20 years later.

The smoke that choked most of the city had reached all the way to the Eastside.

The city, for the first time, imagined exit ramps off its crazy, violent gang freeway. The birth of Homeboy Industries and other outreach programs coincided with the new mantra of law enforcement: “We cannot arrest our way out of this problem.” Angelenos wanted to be “smart on crime” rather than merely tough. Though we continue to stumble in getting the diagnoses right, we’ve moved closer to a healthy treatment plan.

I’m not always optimistic, but I am hopeful. Those fiery days of 1992 obliterated — perhaps once and for all — the illusion that we are separate. No kinship, no peace. No kinship, no justice. No kinship, no equality.

We have learned to hold out for transformation instead of settling for simple success. Instead of scapegoating and division, we hold out for an exquisite mutuality. Less Us and Them, more just Us. What James Baldwin called “us achieving ourselves.”

Sweet-hearted Bear would not survive to see it. He was gunned down months after our playground conversation. I am not sure he would recognize our city now. Though the revolution of tenderness needs footholds here and there, 1992 was not the end of the world. Just the end of some things.

Father Gregory J. Boyle was the pastor of Dolores Mission Church in Boyle Heights in 1992. After the riots, his Jobs for the Future project morphed into Homeboy Bakery and then Homeboy Industries, the largest gang intervention program in the U.S .

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